Right up front, even before his stand up performance starts, Hasan Minhaj makes it clear that he is taking on a risky mission. Well-meaning community elders – uncles and aunties who know better – warn him against wading into these treacherous waters. “Are you out of your mind?” “You’re being stupid now.” “You’re going to make millions of people angry.”
All this after Minhaj suggests he is going to do an episode on the Indian elections. “They are going to kill you.” “Talk about cricket. Talk about sneakers.” “You cannot talk about Narendra Modi. You cannot talk about Priyanka Gandhi.”
This last bit is no doubt to maintain a sense of ‘balance’, perhaps to show that he – and more importantly, Netflix – are not biased towards one party. The financial and vocal muscle of the Indian community in the US is well-known and no one wants to incur their wrath. A campaign, even if half-hearted, to boycott Netflix, has already started online.
Minhaj nonetheless wades in and what follows is 25 minutes of the stand-up comedian trying to explain India to his audience of mainly Americans, for whom, he says, India means henna tattoos, Gwen Stefani’s bindi phase and goat yoga. His jokes and reference points riff on popular culture – at one point, he shows a photo of Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas, saying, “you can’t just marry into it”, evoking laughter.
The 33-year-old US-born comedian normally aims at very American subjects, ranging from politics to hip-hop. He got a big boost when he devoted an entire episode of his show Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj to Saudi Arabia that annoyed the sheikhdom. But he has touched on his ethnic background too, with jokes on the usual community tropes such as over-achieving kids.
This is the first time he has targeted Indian politics. It’s a risky venture, as he admits, and during the show, he does his utmost to appear balanced in terms of not leaning towards one leader or the other. Thus, while his central message is that India is changing, for the worst, he has to bring in the corruption of Congress.
His team reached out to both parties but got no response from the BJP. The always-willing Shashi Tharoor was happy to sit in for the Congress and offer some bromides in his clipped accent, which dilutes the impact of what he wants to say.
The balancing act over, Minhaj seems relieved and reverts to Modi. He compares Modi and Trump, both of whom appeal to their own bases with messages hailing their respective countries – ‘India First’, says one, ‘America First’, says the other – attack the press and so on, though one pulls during handshakes and the other embraces other world leaders (‘one’s a tugger, the other’s a hugger.’)
All this gets huge laughs and the audience gets the point, but the message of Minhaj’s routine is deadly serious. Under Narendra Modi, who is a product of the RSS, there is a move to make India a Hindu country. After giving some background of the RSS – he mocks it by showing drills of paunchy swayamsevaks who look most unfit – he talks about UP under Yogi Adityanath, the monk who carries a gun and has “systematically used fear of the minorities as a cultural wedge issue.” The Indian airstrikes on Balakot, attacks on Dalits and other minorities, even hysterical anchors get a look in.
Minhaj then cleverly shifts towards a point that has a special resonance for him – he is a Muslim; his parents had moved from Aligarh. His Muslim status is repeatedly mentioned, in ways that are jocular but subversive. Right in the beginning, one of the uncles refers to his name – Hasan means ‘nice’ in Arabic, he protests weakly, ‘your name rings a bell, that you are a terrorist.’
Every now and then, he refers to himself as a potential agent of Pakistan, Qatar and then Iran, a sly nod towards the kind of remarks that are heard in India about Muslims. In the wrong hands, it could explode – Minaj makes it his own, blunting the potential attacks on him and the inevitable trolling that he is likely to face.
Funny or not, Minhaj’s politics is hard to miss. And so is his intent. He understands that the desi community in the US, even if not all inclined favourably towards Narendra Modi and the Hindutva groups in general, is not fully informed about the Indian scene. They may keep abreast of the latest news, but their perceptions could be shaped by what they get through not just the mass media (American and Indian), but also social media and the avalanche of posts on family and friends WhatsApp groups.
Minhaj’s attempt is to connect the dots and make sense of all the disparate events that add up to a bigger picture – a fundamental shift in what India has been so far. “Will India remain India or not? Will India defines itself by inclusion or exclusion?” he asks. That disturbs him and he wants it to disturb others who may be otherwise ‘apolitical’ or neutral towards one party or the other.
It’s a fine balancing act that may anger vast numbers of Indian Americans but also has the potential to make many of them think. He can be criticised for oversimplifying things, but that is the view from India. A popular comedian’s voice has tremendous traction and impact, especially on a global platform such as Netflix.
Minhaj has leveraged that influence for something that he must think is very important, in a very clever way.